The Sistani option

by John Quiggin on April 6, 2004

I’m going to try hard from now on to avoid debating whether the war with Iraq was a mistake, and to focus on the question of what should be done from here onwards.

I’ve argued for some months that the most plausible option for a stable allocation of power in Iraq is a de facto two-state solution in which the Kurds get effective autonomy and a share of the oil and the rest of Iraq gets a government which will be dominated by the Shiites. With luck, they won’t try and settle too many scores and will recognise the need to keep much of the Sunni professional elite on side. The government would be Islamist, but not a direct theocracy like Iran.

The key to all this, almost certainly, is Ayatollah Sistani. He’s not the person I’d want running my country (or more precisely acting as the eminence grise for its day-to-day rulers), but he seems like the only plausible choice who wouldn’t be an absolute disaster.

Thus far, the occupation government has done its best to preclude the emergence of a government dominated by followers of Sistani, most obviously by trying to put off elections as long as possible. The assumption has been that, given time, a secular pro-American government will emerge (Chalabhi being the favoured leader). This approach is not absolutely hopeless[1]. Still it’s a long shot at this stage, and policy in matters of life and death shouldn’t be based on long shots.

More importantly, with the apparent blowback of Bremer’s decision to take on Sadr (the latest in a series of disastrous misjudgements on his part), there’s now a big danger that Sistani will either be outflanked by Shi’ite radicals unwilling to accept his quietist position or will feel compelled to advocate overt resistance to the Americans and particularly to the “government” to be installed on June 30, which, on current indications, will lack both legitimacy (being nominated by the Americans) and effective power (since the Americans have announced that they will maintain military control indefinitely). Something needs to be done soon to prevent this.

The urgent requirement is to dump both Bremer and Chalabi and try to find a path that can shift Sistani’s position from passive resistance to active support. This almost certainly entails a commitment to direct elections as soon as possible and an agreement that once an elected government has taken power it should have actual sovereignty, including control over its own military and the right decide what foreign forces if any, are wanted in Iraq. Ideally, the US should bind itself to this course by subordinating its command to the UN (or, failing that, some other international body such as NATO) as soon as the June 30 deadline is reached

Since I can’t see the US Administration following a course of action remotely like this except under extreme pressure, I think it’s appropriate for allied governments to drop the “we broke it, we own it” line and announce that they will not continue to support the occupation beyond June 30 in the absence of a change of policy.

I should say that I’m not claiming that this strategy is guaranteed to work at all, let alone to work well. But I can’t see a better alternative. And, of course, I didn’t support the policies that got us (the world and the Iraqis) here in the first place.

fn1. As is suggested by this report, which notes the success of secular candidates while also making it clear that a reasonably democratic interim government could have been elected using the approach proposed by Sistani and rejected by Bremer, based on using ration books for voter ID.

{ 16 comments }

1

Ghost of a flea 04.06.04 at 11:53 am

This two-state solution might work as a (very) loose federation. I think the key here is the “effective” part of the “effective autonomy” you propose. There is an irony here. The best solution is a “Turkification” of Iraq even as the state of Turkey is one of the biggest external impediments to peace in its ongoing – and to my mind totally irrational – opposition to Kurdish autonomy.

2

Andrew Boucher 04.06.04 at 12:05 pm

“I’m going to try hard from now on to avoid debating whether the war with Iraq was a mistake, and to focus on the question of what should be done from here onwards.”

Thank you!

Some comments on a very good post:

1/ I’d agree that elections are better sooner rather than later. They are also in U.S. interests, since later allows more time for the situation in Iraq to deteriorate, which will tend to radicalize rather than soften the electorate.

2/ Since you’re creating an all-in-one package, I’m not sure about what you would say about transfer of sovereignty for 30 June. Irrespective of elections, I’d say this should be done come Hell or high water – even if this is what Bush is proposing – because it is important that the U.S. get out of being an occupying power asap (even if in fact, after the transfer of sovereignty, it will be exercising a certain amount of control…).

3/ “I think it’s appropriate for allied governments to drop the “we broke it, we own it” line and announce that they will not continue to support the occupation beyond June 30 in the absence of a change of policy.” Probably the part I disagree most strongly in the post. This strikes me as all stick and no carrot. Allied governments should also announce what they’re willing to put in – men and money – should certain (realistic) conditions in Iraq be met. Otherwise it’s just not serious.

3

mitch 04.06.04 at 12:32 pm

Who says the government has to be “Islamist”? How many Shiites want that? Does Sistani himself want it?

The view of Iraqi bloggers seems to be that Sadr is an Iranian proxy and has to be taken on.

4

Don Quijote 04.06.04 at 12:44 pm

There will not be a two state solution, the Turks will never accept a Kurdish State, a it would encourage the Kurds ( ~1/5 of the population) in Turkey to rebel and join the new state.

5

John Isbell 04.06.04 at 1:19 pm

Josh Marshall has a new quote from Bush suggesting that June 30th is now less set in stone than one might think. Don’t discount yet another flip-flop.

6

Lawrence 04.06.04 at 5:24 pm

If one of the necessary outcomes is improved U.S. security, how do we pull out on June 30? What’s to keep the Sunni triangle from becoming a base for international terrorists?

7

Sebastian Holsclaw 04.06.04 at 6:42 pm

“Bremer’s decision to take on Sadr (the latest in a series of disastrous misjudgements on his part).”

I don’t understand this formulation. When a leader tells his followers to take up arms and kill as anyone who trys to help the US establish a government, how can you think of that as a “Bremer’s decision to take on Sadr.”

But that aside, do you specifically dislike the formulation of the interim Constitution? It seems to have a pretty dynamic balance.

8

PJB 04.06.04 at 7:51 pm

It doesn’t really matter what format is adopted. Chalabi is the next Boss of Iraq. The “democracy” is just window dressing.

9

John Quiggin 04.06.04 at 8:53 pm

“Bremer’s decision to take on Sadr”

This refers to the closure of the Sadrist newspaper al-Hawza and the arrest of one of Sadr’s associates on a warrant for murder that had been outstanding for many months, with the clear implication that Sadr would also be arrested in the near future.

All this preceded Sadr’s call to arms, and has been seen by most commentators as a deliberate decision to eliminate Sadr before June 30. Juan Cole has the most detailed discussion.

10

derrida derider 04.07.04 at 1:32 am

You’re right that the interesting questions are about how to find our way out of this slough of despond, rather than how we ended up in it. But surely an obvious first step is to sack those who led us in to the mire, and who show every sign of getting us more deeply enmired.

IOW I think there’s still value in pointing out the consequences of the lies, ignorance and incompetence of our rulers, until we get a change of rulers,

11

Shaun Evans 04.07.04 at 3:50 am

My compliments on a fine essay.

My only comment is that holding one election is easy. The trick to democracy is to have a second, and a third, and fourth, without falling into a civil war. As, indeed, the US did.

While elections are a visible symbol of democracy, there must be an underlying commitment to democratic values. First, people must be secure that losing power will not mean losing one’s life and property in reprisals. Second, there must be a realistic prospect for the losers to regain power. If loyalties are tribally focused, this is unlikely. Finally, there must be negative consequences for those who attempt to gain power through violence, instead of debate.

12

Motoko 04.07.04 at 8:18 am

The view of Iraqi bloggers seems to be that Sadr is an Iranian proxy and has to be taken on.

What a strange thing to say, Mitch. According to Riverbend he has easily over a million followers (“some say four million”). Raed says five to seven million.

13

raj 04.07.04 at 12:21 pm

Query whether the neighboring states with substantial Kurdish minorities–Turkey, Syria and Iran–would sit still for a “solution” that gives Kurdish Iraqis virtual autonomy.

14

John Quiggin 04.07.04 at 1:28 pm

raj, my view is that the Kurds have had substantial autonomy for years, and that, at this point, the best neighbouring states can hope for is that they (the Kurds) will settle for this rather than pursuing the (chimerical in my view) push for a new state of Kurdistan.

15

mitch 04.07.04 at 2:39 pm

moloko: These were the people I read: 1 2 3. I guess we’ll see who’s closer to the truth.

16

wbb 04.07.04 at 3:42 pm

excellent commentary

Kurdistan is here to stay unless engulfed in an Iraqi civil war of the future.

Sistani is sitting back letting the USA take the pain of dealing with the intemperate and the mob. He’s playing his cards well. He’ll step forward when he feels the USA is mired and wants a face saving solution.

God knows how the Sunnis and the Shias are going to resolve their tensions after that though.

Saddam knew how to keep the peace, shoot lots of people. This method may be used again in Iraq.

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